Lessons from evolutionary biology

biology“There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.”  – Jeff Lawrence

This statement really rings true. Our organizations are made up of shared values, structures, cultural and behavioral norms. These have contributed to the organization’s success and have made it survive in the past. But what can you do as a leader if the current values, culture, behavioral norms, and structures only reinforce the status quo and don’t  support building organizational capacity to meet future challenges?

That’s where leadership expert and author Ron Heifetz says that we need to practice adaptive leadership, “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”  The challenges we face in higher education today are indeed tough — from funding and demographic shifts, to changes in how we deliver education — and will require a different approach than the one that has made colleges and universities successful in the past. To illustrate this concept of adaptive leadership, Heifetz draws lessons from evolutionary biology, where he says successful adaptation has three characteristics:*

  1. It preserves the DNA essential for the species’ continued survival
  2. It discards (reregulates or rearranges) the DNA that no longer serves the species’ current needs
  3. It creates DNA arrangements that give the species the ability to flourish in new ways and in more challenging environments

Drawing from these three characteristics, Heifetz gives leaders the following helpful insights.  I’ve added some corresponding questions that you might consider as you mobilize people to tackle tough challenges:

  • Adaptive leadership is about CHANGE that enables the capacity to thrive. As in evolution, new combinations and variations can help organizations thrive under challenging circumstances.  Ask: What can be done differently to address a challenge?
  • Successful adaptive changes build on the PAST rather than jettison it.  Ask: What should you preserve from the past and what is expendable?
  • Organizational adaptation occurs through experimentation.  Ask: What can you try or pilot in order to meet a complex challenge?
  • Adaptation relies on diversity. The secret of evolution is variation. Ask: How can you include diverse views into your decision-making processes?
  • New adaptations significantly displace, reregulate, and rearrange some old DNA.  Ask: How will you prepare people for loss that might occur with change?
  • Adaptation takes time.  Significant change is the product of incremental experiments that build up over time. Ask: How will you stay in the game for the long-term?

Anita Rios

*(Source: Heifetz, Ronald; Grashow, Alexander; Linsky, Marty. (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press)


2 responses to “Lessons from evolutionary biology

  1. Michael Van Keulen

    Thanks for this, Anita! I am going to share it with my colleagues. Good stuff.


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